I received this in an email this morning from Fr Tom Cairns, who is one of those great old Anglo-catholic priests many of us have known over the years. They're the very ones whose faithful witness has prodded this movement along, and we owe them a great deal. Like Fr Cairns, many of them are as old as Zechariah was when Gabriel visited him — but they have submitted their dossiers along with everyone else, and even though they might not have many years of service left in this present life, I hope the Church is able to confirm them in their priestly vocation so that they might serve for the rest of their days, and have the undoubted assurance that they are priests forever, after the order of Melchizedek.
As I review the lessons for Mass this morning, I am aware they deal with the rewards given by God to childless couples – some of them pretty old at that. Now, this should not suggest that I truly feel that same predicament as those in today’s readings, for that matter was taken care of in my life since the second year of our marriage some fifty-four years ago. Yet, I do feel an insecurity today, not for lack of children for sure. My concern is a tad hard to describe, perhaps a bit like a church without a steeple.
The Gospel story for today was exciting and most of us remember it since the first time we heard it or read it. A barren couple, Zechariah and Elisabeth, felt excluded from life because they had no children. Yet they were faithful in their prayers and life together and Zechariah served as one of the priests at the temple. While he was in the Holy of Holies sacred space, an angel spoke to him. It wasn't a short conversation either. Remember that the priest who went into this sacred space once a year had a rope tied to his leg just in case he would be overwhelmed by the holiness within. If he did not come out within a certain time, he would be dragged out by the other priests waiting outside. In any case Z took his time. He found it difficult to believe what was being revealed to him. Then the angel took over and told him how God would take action in spite of his hesitation and fumbling around. Z said, “I am an Old Man.” The angel said, “I am Gabriel, who stands before God….” We know what happened and how God prevailed.
Eventually the child was born and then the relatives had their debate over the child’s name. Finally Z was able to speak and say, “John is his name.” It was a name that meant that “God is gracious,” that is, God chooses the time and the means to be extravagant with love and generosity, with mercy and with new life.
The dynamics of Christmas, the extra expectations of this Advent and Christmas season have a good purpose. They wake us up, not so much to what we can do for one another, or for family and friends, but rather to what God wants to do for us and is planning to do for us, even if we are dumbstruck like the old priest Z. I like to think that Christmas is a time when God wants to surprise us with love. So we have a few days left to get ready.
Selfishly, some of my thoughts deal with what I want for Christmas. Like about fifty or more Anglican priests hanging at the end of our ropes, we seek information. Is God going to reward our desires and when? When will I be sitting at this computer pumping out a homily? When will I enter a church again wearing clerical clothes (which are the better part of my wardrobe)? When will I again have that extraordinary experience of presiding at the altar and proclaiming, “O Father Almighty, World without end.” Just writing this paragraph reminds me that I share Zechariah’s age and I must be patient as he was. The gift I need from God this Christmas is not a material thing. It is patience and the ability to encourage my brothers who seek the same information. Z has one advantage over me – he was speechless for one thing and didn't have a phone for another. My response to my brothers is… Oh dear, I am beginning to wish I was speechless! I can write, here goes: God remains in charge and he is gracious. He has appointed strong men to look over us, but they are just as new at this game as we are and they have unanswered questions as well as we do. These answers may not come in time for Christmas, but when they do it will be Christmas all over again. That is my prayer for today.
I ask God’s blessing upon each of you in my boat.
Fr Tom Cairns